David and Goliath

by Glenn on November 9, 2014

Some time ago I listened to a Ted Talk featuring Malcolm Gladwell telling the Biblical story of David and Goliath. I thought it was terrific. This afternoon and evening I tested my recollection with a bit of Malcom Gladwell binge-watching on YouTube as I went back to that Ted Talk and soaked in some other presentations of his. I recommend highly this 15-minute lecture.

What I loved so much was how Gladwell in retelling the story offered so many insights. He conveys so well his conclusion that this is “a story with unexpected depth and complexity.” (This quote comes from here.) Most inspiring, he was completely faithful to the text. Maybe he says, “Right?” a little too much. Right? But I can let that go. I respect anyone who is thoughtful and serious about the Bible.

I don’t like how the story of David and Goliath is normally told in church. As Gladwell pointed out in another talk, the story of David and Goliath is presented as “a one in a million longshot,” “a metaphor about improbable victories.”

Timothy Keller, a proponent of Christ-Centered preaching and exposition, explains that without Christ this story is often told this way: “The bigger they come, the harder they’ll fall, if you just go into your battles with faith in the Lord. You may not be real big and powerful in yourself, but with God on your side, you can overcome giants.”1 Timothy’s wife, Kathy, calls this “M.O.T.S. preaching,” which, Timothy clarifies, is “Moral of the Story preaching.”2

Gladwell and Keller are kind in how they summarize what is often done with this story. Actual sermons are nearly caricatures. Some of the presentations I remember about David and Goliath turned the story into something of a fairytale.

As one preacher tells it, “With sling in hand, [David] chose 5 smooth stones from a brook and yelled charge as he ran into a valley of certain death.”

[You know, I’ve never thought of David as suicidal. In fact, 1 Samuel 17 presents a young man who cares deeply that the people of God are being defied by the Philistines (see 1 Samuel 17:26) and oozing with confidence in himself and God that he can take out Goliath. (see 1 Samuel 17:33–37) The passage tells us that David was an expert with a sling (not a sling shot, the child’s toy), a weapon with phenomenal stopping power.]

The preacher continues, “God guided his actions and the stone right between the eyes of the giant who fell flat.”

[The story is now in the realm of incredible luck, a miraculous act of God.]

The preacher concludes his summary of the story with the obligatory bad preacher joke: “Then David proved he knew how to get a head!”

For this and other preachers, the story isn’t nearly as important as what you can do with the story.

For one, you can transform the story into some sort of allegory for how the Church (the Israelites) is in a battle with forces of evil (the Philistines), and our David (Jesus) has beaten Goliath (Satan).

For another, you can place yourself into the story. We are all David and through miraculous power we can beat the Goliaths in our lives. There are all sorts of personal “giants” in our lives—giants of fear, addiction, unemployment, regret, poor health, finances, etc.—but fortunately we can pick up stones of courage, confidence, trust, preparation, whatever, to face these giants. To kill the giants we simply need to, for example, “exhibit the right motives,” “embrace the right methods,” and “expect the right miracles.” Alliteration appears essential. (Mild assonance for purposes of irony.)

It’s not that these sermons get it all wrong, though if David’s killing of Goliath is totally a miraculous fluke, then your sermon has to be some formula for getting God to do a miracle in your life, which seems like it turns God into some sort of genie to accomplish whatever it is that you want. That’s dangerous territory.

What I liked about Gladwell’s retelling of the story is that he simply retold the story in an insightful, compelling way. There’s a lot there, it turns out, that gets neglected when you move too quickly from telling a story about David to moralizing about how we should be like David (at least the David here—obviously, don’t be like the David on the rooftop spying on Bathsheba when you should be at war). Somehow that approach trivializes the scriptures for me.

I think there are lessons in this story for us. Gladwell says that David “changed the rules of warfare without telling his opponent” (Goliath was counting on hand-to-hand combat), he used “superior technology,” and he was “filled with the Spirit of the Lord.” As the psalmist says, “Selah.” (“Think about that.”) I don’t think it makes the story any less powerful or spiritual to argue that those are important points. (Not sure how Gladwell further develops the idea. I haven’t read his book.)

And it’s not wrong to consider how this story figures into the longer arch of redemptive history. A good argument has been made that we can’t be David. Our enemy was and is too great. As the helpless Israelites needed a David, we needed and need Jesus, the Messiah, who came from the line of David to conquer sin. We can know victory not by going out to be victorious for ourselves, but because Jesus was victorious for us.

I like Timothy Keller’s approach to teaching the Hebrew scriptures. Keller asks, “There is, in the end, only two ways to read the Bible: is it basically about me or basically about Jesus? In other words, is it basically about what I must do, or basically about what he has done?”3

Here’s where Keller takes the story:

“If I read David and Goliath as basically giving me an example, then the story is really about me. I must summon up the faith and courage to fight the giants in my life. But if I read David and Goliath as basically showing me salvation through Jesus, then the story is really about him. Until I see that Jesus fought the real giants (sin, law, death) for me, I will never have the courage to be able to fight ordinary giants in life (suffering, disappointment, failure, criticism, hardship). For example how can I ever fight the ‘giant’ of failure, unless I have a deep security that God will not abandon me? If I see David as my example, the story will never help me fight the failure/giant. But if I see David/Jesus as my substitute, whose victory is imputed to me, then I can stand before the failure/giant. As another example, how can I ever fight the ‘giant’ of persecution or criticism? Unless I can see him forgiving me on the cross, I won’t be able to forgive others.”4

Thank you Malcolm Gladwell for your faithful and inspiring retelling of David and Goliath. Thank you Timothy Keller for preaching the gospel.

If you’ve got an hour and a half, you might enjoy an interview with Malcolm Gladwell. He is a remarkable human being. (And Eric Metaxas is pretty funny as host/interviewer.)

Near the end, he is asked by a member of the audience to be vulnerable and describe giants he has faced in his life. His answer is refreshingly honest and deeply satisfying.

He was also asked for a predictor of success in people. Love this answer:

“You can’t pick one thing. There are so many different ways to achieve something of value in the world. Maybe it’s simply that the ability to care on some kind of deep level about what you’re doing at the moment that you’re doing it is about as close as I can come to answering that question because everything follows from that.
“You have to be committed to the task that you are doing. And the minute any indifference or cynicism or anything creeps into that then I think you’ve lost ground.
“It requires we have a definition of success. People are successful in my book to the extent that they care about what they do. They do something that they care about. If you can pull that off, I think you’ve won.”